Only in London by Hanan al-Shaykh

East meets West in W2: Shusha Guppy acclaims the wit and warmth of a border-crossing romance
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The Independent Culture

Until now, Hanan al-Shaykh's novels have been firmly grounded in Arab soil. They told of the lives of men and women ­ particularly the latter ­ in Arab countries as they struggle for survival and freedom in closed societies, often caught in the upheavals of internecine hostility and "development". In her new book, we are still in the Arab world, but the location has shifted to London ­ that small area that stretches along the Edgware Road to Marble Arch, down Park Lane and its luxury hotels.

A "native" walking in this Little Arabia on a summer evening would find a Levantine scene: Arab cafés bulging with colourful crowds; men smoking hubble-bubble outside; women in traditional abaya sporting Western brand-name accessories; the air imbued with the smell of charcoal-grilled meat. Who are these people and what kind of lives do they lead? Hanan al-Shaykh tells us the stories of a few of them.

We meet the main characters on a plane from Dubai. They are from various Arab countries, thrown together when the plane hits some heavy turbulence. At Heathrow they disperse, having exchanged telephone numbers, and for the rest of the book their paths cross as we follow their adventures. It is a fascinating, picaresque tale told with humour and compassion, and with even the minor characters sharply drawn.

At the centre of the novel is beautiful, gentle, brave Lamis, recently divorced from her husband. An Iraqi refugee to Beirut, she is coerced into marriage to a rich older man to save her family from poverty. They move to London, and after nine years and a son, she makes a bid for freedom.

She tries to start a business in Dubai but it founders through official ineptitude. On the flight back, she is uncertain about the future, yet determined not to return to a loveless marriage. She meets Nicholas, a young Englishman who is an expert in antique daggers and spends extravagant sums on behalf of Arab collectors to find them.

Lamis and Nicholas live in worlds so far apart, with temperaments and customs so alien, that a meeting of souls seems improbable. Yet their love affair is entirely convincing, and al-Shaykh handles the erotic scenes with exemplary discretion and tenderness. "A chance meeting is better than a thousand rendezvous," says an Arab proverb, and theirs is engineered by Fortune. At times the story teeters dangerously on the brink of romantic-novel territory, but Al-Shaykh is too good a novelist to let it slip. She is in full command of her characters, and their vicissitudes are born of real problems. How do women, especially Muslim women, negotiate the Charybdis and Scylla of freedom and security?

The couple's adventures entwine with those of the other passengers. There is Amira ­ large, eccentric, resourceful. She came to London from Morocco to work as a maid, but has ended up a high-class prostitute with an Arab clientele: "However much [an Arab] man wanted a fling with a foreigner, he was attracted by women of his own kind... [Call girls] with names like Beauty of Lebanon, Star of Syria."

Amira's adventures are hilarious: she poses as a princess living at the Dorchester, distributing £50 notes like confetti. Inevitably she comes a cropper, but soldiers on, and with a heart of gold dispenses money and affection.

There is the kind homosexual Samir, with a wife and children back home, longing for blond Englishmen who remain forever out of reach. Persuaded to smuggle a monkey, he delivers it safely only to find that the animal has been fed huge diamonds which he must now evacuate. When he does, the smugglers take the loot and decamp, leaving Samir holding the monkey: "He'd imagined that, as soon as the plane set down in London, he'd see rows of English boys undulating like golden ears of wheat". Instead he is left with an illegal animal, no money and nowhere to go.

Amira gives him shelter, and an amusing symbiosis is established between him, his monkey and his benefactor. The need for human warmth and protection create bonds of friendship and loyalty among these disparate exiles.

Al-Shaykh is also very good at observations about the English (all Britons are English to Middle Easterners) ­ their aloofness, their "mania for analysis". She implies that if the Arabs in London are deracinated and lonely, the natives feel no less alien in a harsh world where individuals compete for survival. We are all alone in London, too suspicious and busy to connect.

Despite easy communication, here symbolised by the aeroplane, each remains locked in his or her own world. "Oh East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet," said Kipling. Al-Shaykh demonstrates that only love can throw a bridge over the chasm; only love can generate the sparkle that illuminates the path to sympathy. This perceptive, funny, erotic, gentle novel helps, too.